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With no end in sight for high water levels, we're offering solutions that work for property owners, the environment
February 26, 2020
(A version of this guest column by EGLE Director Liesl Clark appeared on MLive last week.)
High water levels have taken a toll across Michigan and it doesn't look like it's going to get any better this year.
We've gone from record low lake levels six years ago to record highs in record time. That has had a devastating impact on homes, shorelines, parks, even campgrounds. It also threatens key infrastructure such as wastewater treatment facilities and roadways across the state.
At our recent Michigan High Water Coordinating Summit, which brought together state agencies, emergency managers, federal partners, and organizations representing local government officials, we heard scary numbers about how saturated our state is. Michigan is in the middle of the wettest one-year, three-year, and five-year periods since records began 125 years ago. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said the Great Lakes recently had the largest 24-month rise in the period on record. And, it's been the wettest September through December on record, according to the National Weather Service.
We're seeing the impact across the state. More water has flowed past Grand Rapids down the Grand River in the first four months of the current water year — which started in October 2019 — than usually passes through in an entire year. The situation is similar on the Tittabawassee River near Midland, the Manistee near Traverse City, and the Manistique in the Upper Peninsula.
As passionate stewards of the state’s water resources, the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) has regulatory oversight over most projects intended to protect the state's shorelines from erosion. That oversight includes permitting of the materials and construction methods that will limit negative impacts on neighbors, the Great Lakes, and in many cases critical dunes.
Legislation has been introduced to give contractors a free pass to armor shorelines without a permit — regardless of the effect on neighboring properties and important natural features. This is not the solution. Installing shoreline protections incorrectly can actually cause more problems than it solves. Waves can destroy barriers and spread debris into the lake. Protection for one property may actually exacerbate erosion on neighboring properties. We don't want to add to the erosion problem with haphazard and uncoordinated efforts to gird our shorelines.
One of the solutions EGLE has implemented is speeding up the permitting process for property owners who find themselves in critical situations. A completed permit can be approved in a few days. And in the most critical situations, we can work with a contractor to submit an application after the work has started and assure that the work will be permittable after the fact.
The bottom line: We will work with homeowners to find timely solutions that benefit everyone and that create the least impact on the shore or the state's globally significant freshwater dune system.
Speeding up permit processing isn't the only tool in our toolbox. We are:
- Working with our community partners to study high water impacts on inland lakes, rivers, and canals, as well as working with communities on measures to safeguard infrastructure.
- Assisting partners with statewide mapping or areas vulnerable to flooding if water levels increase another foot, as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is predicting for this Spring.
- Diverting staff to lakeshore permitting and approving overtime to process permits, more than 500 from October to December 2019.
- Approving the temporary use of sandbags to guard against erosion.
- Beefing up our customer assistance so people with questions can get answers more quickly.
- Coordinating with other state agencies, local emergency managers, and community stakeholders through the Michigan High Water Action Team on short- and long-term efforts to stem the impact of high water levels.
We're constantly asking what more we can do and what resources might be available to help property owners, municipalities, and others who are being inundated.
Funding those resources will be important. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in her 2020 proposed budget has allocated $40 million in one-time climate resistant infrastructure grants, $30 million of which would be earmarked for flooding and coastal erosion.
Town halls will also be scheduled across the state this spring to communicate with residents what we're doing and to listen to their needs.
One message we will emphasize is that property owners should begin acting soon as possible, before the situation become critical. Even with EGLE expediting permits, experienced contractors and engineers are in high demand and short supply. Flooding, erosion, and high water levels will not go away soon. We have a wonderful, professional staff, so please reach out to us. Contact information for our district offices and a link to a page dedicated to high water issues is on our website at Michigan.gov/EGLE.
We can't control lake levels, but we can help municipal governments, property owners, and contractors develop timely and smart solutions that work for everyone.